Swimming with the River

My first post for a while, it could have easily had a different name. Following the format of other posts I was planning on ‘Swimming with… Margaret Gearty’ or ‘Swimming in the River with Margaret Gearty’. But after my swim in the River Frome with Margaret, I was left with a realisation that we weren’t really swimming in the River but were swimming with it, two of the countless elements flowing together.

Margaret swimming

I first met Margaret through my friend and collaborator Chris Seeley and workshops that I ran with her at Ashridge College, exploring with PhD/Masters students the role of arts processes in action research, in particular the way that such processes can bring awareness of embodied experiences, and our relationship with place.

‘Margaret Gearty is an action researcher, consultant and educator whose work and passion is all about how the simple human matter of storytelling can be combined with reflective and participative action research to stimulate important learning and change for individuals, communities and organisations.’

New Histories website

Since then Margaret and I have become friends, meeting from time to time to share our practices and passions, including Margaret’s ongoing research into Poetic Activism. Margaret has recently written a blog post called Poetic Moments which, she writes, draws on ‘… my experiences of river swimming, I explore the poetic as it arises in my life. This piece invites you to consider what the ‘poetic’ is for you too.’

I approached Margaret to walk or otherwise spend some time with me and a river of her choice, as part of my Queer River research. She invited me to swim at Farleigh Hungerford in/with the River Frome. The River Frome that we visited rises to the south of the town of Frome and travels north on its way to join the Bristol Avon at Freshford, a different section of the same river that I walked along with Joe Jukes (see Walking with… Queer Geographer Joe Jukes).

As I wrote in Crossing Points – Views from a Bike and Wetlands and Wellbeing: Queer Perspectives on Blue Health, I’m keen to explore how different ways of experiencing rivers (whether by walking, cycling, canoeing or swimming) can affect our perspective on and understanding of them, This post just begins to share the learning that comes from swimming with a river, I’m planning on following it up with more river swimming again soon.

Included here are some of the photos and videos that I took as I swam with a tiny waterproof camera around my neck, before climbing out, drying off and eating a picnic together in the sunshine. The words that we used as we reflected on our swim, and swimming with rivers in general, seemed really difficult to find. The experience of swimming in that stretch of the River Frome, was to me, one of letting go of existing ideas/experiences, and allowing new ones to take their place.

Trying to make sense of it now in this blog, the mental images feel slow and shadowy and my existing language doesn’t quite fit. I’m keen not to force my experience into an artificially precise form. For now at least, the blurry, drippy images and the sensations they evoke, seem a better fit. Sensations that opened me up to an awareness of being part of a larger whole, one river body among many.

‘In opening up to our droughts, seepages and inundations, that are also animal and elemental, we are reminded that our humanness is alsways more than the bonds of our skin. By tuning into these bodily molecularities as lived, we might also attune ourselves empathically, to other bodies of water beyond us… we could say that in these molecularities, we tune into an original elemental empathy that is always there, swimming beneath the surface.’

Bodies of Water – Astrid Neimanis

Plant stem details

The key feeling I have taken away from our swim, was that I was experiencing myself as one of the elements that makes up a river. I wasn’t looking down on it (at the water) from a bridge, I wasn’t walking alongside it (the water and bankside vegetation) either. Damselflies were fluttering inches away from my face, my arms and legs were working hard to keep me afloat, my toes were reaching out to find solid ground when I grew tired, and if lucky either found rough stone, soft smooth silt or branching roots. Whether I could reach anything with my toes at all was always an unknown, as the green/brown water kept its depth and its contents a secret from my eyes.

Looking up at the banks

The bankside vegetation started around the level of my face and continued far up above me, from Yellow Waterlilies to Purple Loosestrife and tall Alder trees. A Moorhen family stood on floating iris stems and watched me struggle by, less fit than I thought I was, and no threat to them in their home environment. I was enveloped, surrounded, immersed, and after a busy few weeks of work and the frienzied end of term at my son’s primary school, my mind felt washed clean.

‘It is one of those rare moments when my usual restlessness leaves me. In other parts of my life, I often wonder if I’m in the right place, doing the right thing. It’s an anxious uneasy feeling. That I must strive to get on. That there may just be a more important elsewhere I need to be. But here, in the river, such questions are stilled..’

Margaret Gearty – Poetic Moments

Thank you Margaret. More again soon I hope…

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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